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Ted Cruz Dumbs Down

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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In advance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech to Congress yesterday, the New York Times reported on a small irritant exacerbating already tense U.S.-Israeli relations. It seems President Barack Obama's former campaign operative, Jeremy Bird, is currently advising a group in Israel that seeks to defeat Netanyahu in national elections later this month.

The story is mostly inconsequential. American political consultants have worked for one side or another in foreign countries for years. Political skills and strategies are surprisingly adaptable to various democratic nations -- or at least that's what many foreign political parties believe. For U.S. consultants, the work is profitable, prestigious and fun. It arguably expands U.S. influence abroad and creates relationships that U.S. leaders can occasionally tap for insight into foreign peers.   

Still, the article provided a small, telling window into the character of Senator Ted Cruz. In an interview with the Times, the senator said: “It is deeply troubling that President Obama’s national field director is helping run the campaign to defeat the democratically elected leader of one of our closest friends and allies, the nation of Israel.”

You see what he did there, right? In Cruz's formulation, Bird isn't working for a democratic group trying to influence the outcome of a democratic election in order to advance a particular vision of democratic politics. He’s working "to defeat the democratically elected leader of one of our closest friends and allies." The statement manages to be technically true while implying that a former Obama campaign aide is a treasonous little Bolshevik. (For the record, Republican consultants, too, have worked "to defeat the democratically elected leader of one of our closest friends and allies" in Israel and the United Kingdom.)

Why focus on this evanescent instance of Cruz's standard operating procedure when so many other examples exist? (Cruz's first resort after Netanyahu's speech was to compare Obama with Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler.) Precisely because it matters so little. No matter how insignificant the prompt, Cruz's default is sly insinuation or plain demagogy. 

Everyone is a potential prop. Cruz told a conservative audience that Senate Democrats were pushing legislation to "repeal the First Amendment." He used a speech last September to a group devoted to protecting Christians in the Middle East as a dramatic set piece to symbolically martyr himself for Israel. The gambit was so crudely transparent that even a few conservatives noted it. Moderate Republican Representative Charlie Dent -- who represents a Pennsylvania district including Americans of Syrian and Lebanese descent -- called Cruz's performance "outrageous and incendiary."

There is irony in Cruz's chosen path. Once a law student eager to study only with graduates of the very top Ivy League schools, he is renowned for his elite intellect. Yet Cruz is now the leader of a reactionary faction that includes some of the dimmest bulbs in Congress.

Demagogy, of course, is intended to advance ambition, not thwart it. Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate” tells of Democratic Senator Lyndon Johnson using the power of an obscure subcommittee and his own bottomless ambition to destroy a good man. In Caro’s telling, Johnson wanted to please the natural gas industry by railroading Leland Olds, the chairman of the Federal Power Commission in the 1940s, out of his job. So Johnson dredged up old accusations and cast Olds in the role of Communist sympathizer. It was pure demagogy, as Johnson’s future vice president, Senator Hubert Humphrey, more or less stated at the time. But it worked. Johnson won the battle and eventually the presidency. Johnson's successor was another whose ambition outpaced his ethics: Richard Nixon.

While Johnson and Nixon used demagogy to advance strategic agendas, Cruz seems incapable of such discernment. For him, it appears more a force of habit, as if he can't resist political temptation and doesn't try to. In effect, Cruz's lack of scruples dumbs him down. In attempting to clear his path to power, he obstructs it. The smartest guy in the room turns out to be a dunce.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net